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Miami Heat heads into training camp with unprecedented buzz and enmity

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 11:45 PM

MIAMI -- The Miami Heat will open training camp Tuesday morning at a U.S. Air Force base in Florida's panhandle that is closer to Houston than to the team's arena. As LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh practice together for the first time as NBA teammates, they will be 600 miles from the glitz and buzz of Miami. Journalists intending to cover the trio's debut must submit to background checks and dog searches, and will be taken on and off Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach by bus. The players will bunk in dormitories, insulated from the public.

Beginning the 2010-11 season behind barbed-wire fences makes sense, perhaps, under the circumstances. Never before have the three biggest stars from any U.S. professional sports free agent class decided to join forces with the goal of fashioning an instant dynasty. And never before have offseason moves generated so much controversy and conversation. In a tandem move described as unsporting by some and unselfish by others, three theoretical rivals shed their swords in July and agreed to share the stage for the next six years.

James, Wade and Bosh, immediately dubbed "the Three Kings," have turned the Heat into an overnight NBA Finals contender as well as an object of international wonder and extremely heavy stateside resentment.

"It's going to be the top story every night, period," said Jalen Rose, an ESPN commentator who played 13 seasons with six NBA teams. "When you turn on 'SportsCenter,' turn on the local news, you're going to see what happened in the Heat game."

Worldwide reach

Known for promoting individual stars such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, a league with more global reach than any other U.S. professional sports league suddenly finds itself with a squad of megastars as its prime showpiece. The Heat is not only positioned to join the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees in the rarefied air of so-called "America's teams" - those detested as much as loved and admired - but Heat officials mindful of the NBA's international appeal are also angling to launch the franchise into the global sphere occupied by Manchester United and iconic athletes such as Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.

All this even though the trio hasn't played a single game yet for Miami. Whether the team's performance will live up to the hype has only heightened the interest surrounding it.

"It's theater," said Mark Bartelstein, a Chicago-based agent who represents more than 120 NBA and NFL players. "It's entertainment. It's what plays. It's just heroes and villains. People love great rivalries. They love teams that hate each other. There's a lot of interest. I think the casual fan tuned in to the soap opera that the NBA was this summer, and it will carry forward."

Overseas fans tuned in, too. Since the end of June, the Heat's Facebook "friends" have swelled from 23,000 to nearly 250,000, and half live outside the United States, according to Eric Woolworth, the Heat's president of business operations. The team's Web site attracted more visitors between July 1 and mid-August than in all of last season, he said, with more than 40 percent of the hits coming from international sources - not surprising given that more than 50 percent of NBA.com hits originate overseas, according to league spokesman Mike Bass. Meanwhile, a multitude of companies from Europe and China have sought sponsorships, Woolworth said, with deals likely to be announced throughout the fall.

The diversity and intensity of interest have far surpassed that surrounding the 2005-06 Heat team that won an NBA title after acquiring outsize star Shaquille O'Neal as a sidekick to Wade.

"The team has sort of catapulted into a new universe," Woolworth said. "From a corporate perspective, we're playing in a sandbox we've never played in before."

A mix of strung-out drama, garish execution and over-the-top revelry helped turn the signing sweep into must-see reality TV. After a week of visits with a half-dozen teams, James chose to unveil his choice on an hour-long special called "The Decision" that drew a 7.3 overnight rating - the same size viewing audience that tuned in to the recent record-matching Virginia Tech-Boise State game and the U.S. World Cup opener against England.

In the aftermath of the show, public support for James dipped precipitously, according to the marketing research firm The Q Scores Company, and Wade's and Bosh's reputations also sank. James went from having one of the most positive athlete approval ratings in January (24 percent viewed him positively; 22 percent negatively) to falling into the top 10 of disliked athletes by August (14 percent positive and 39 negative), company spokesman Henry Schafer said. Wade and Bosh also earned negative reviews; their numbers went from 21/18 to 15/25 for Wade and 13/21 to 12/35 for Bosh, Schafer said.

Meanwhile, the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, told a Dallas radio show this month that James pulled off the "largest public humiliation in the history of sports . . . and all of a sudden, he became a bad guy, he lost a billion dollars in brand equity."

Cashing in on interest

Experts say reputations may have been tarnished, but demand and interest have surged. Raw passion has proven very good for business, driving up prices for home and away Heat tickets. Tickets for Miami's home opener against Orlando showed an average price of $536 in early September on the ticket exchange site StubHub, according to StubHub spokesman Glenn Lehrman. By comparison, last year's Miami home opener against the Knicks drew an average of $50.

The Christmas day game in Los Angeles between the Heat and NBA champion Lakers was averaging $478, Lehrman said.

"You might see an average ticket price for a Yankees opening game at $150," Lehrman said. "To have it this high, the only thing I can try to compare it to was the Vikings last year, when they got Brett Favre. But even that was nowhere near this. . . . It's certainly as high as any opening game has ever been. The only thing higher is the Super Bowl; it hasn't reached that level."

Added Lehrman: "The fact that we're even having this conversation, comparing a Super Bowl and an NBA season opener, is almost preposterous, but that's where we are now."

The Heat will make the maximum 15 national television appearances on ESPN and ABC this season after being featured seven times last year.

James, Wade and Bosh jerseys have climbed a combined 27 percent in sales league-wide, according to the NBA, and Heat merchandise sales since July have increased by a factor of 10 over last year, Woolworth said. Even new season ticket sales around the league are up 45 percent, according to Chris Granger, the NBA's senior vice president of team marketing and business operations, who noted that the summer's excitement surely has been a significant contributor. The Heat did not sell out American Airlines Arena with its season ticket packages, but only because it decided to hold back a third of of available seats so it could make individual and group tickets available to a broader fan base throughout the year.

"We clearly could have sold out the arena," Woolworth said. "We probably could have sold it out twice."

David Schreff, former president of the NBA's marketing and media group, said the more theatrical elements of the offseason succeeded in catching the attention of casual sports fans - a critical heist.

"The core fans alone throughout the league are not always what drives Taco Bell or Coca-Cola or what have you," said Schreff, now chief executive of Bedare Sports and Entertainment.

They also created a vehement set of Heat haters, another key component of transcendent franchises.

"All the great teams were hated," said Jerry Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns who now directs USA Basketball's national team program. "Call it jealousy, call it whatever. They won so much that people got tired of it. . . . But teams that were hated earned it over a period of years. This team took a shortcut."

They can't, however, take a shortcut to the NBA Finals. Whether the highly anticipated merging of talent will translate to on-court chemistry and dominance remains a mystery, one likely to keep both the fascinated and the miffed - in the United States and overseas - tuning in as the season unfolds.

"There's no question they have the big, big, big target on their backs," said Henry Thomas, who represents Wade and Bosh. "They know it. They know they haven't done anything other than assemble talent. . . . They have to actually perform. There is no question every team is going to be more than ready every time they play."

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